What to Do When Your Child Runs Away

How to Respond to a Boundary Tester

In many cases, open communication and some appropriate consequences are enough to stop a runaway in her tracks.

Forget horror movies, gas station bathrooms and Black Friday crowds: Nothing is scarier than not knowing where your child is. Whether it's your free-spirited toddler making a break for it in the grocery store or your unhappy preteen running away from school, most parents will have at least one of these terrifying experiences. The way you talk to your child before and after the incident should minimize the risk of it happening again.

When Your Toddler or Preschooler Runs From You

Ah, yes, the "run from Mommy and Daddy" game. It's a classic with kids between the ages of about 2 and 5. They're testing boundaries and discovering their own power to get a reaction out of you. Some kids at this age have boundless energy and want to run just because it feels good, while others wander off because they get distracted by something interesting.

If your child runs away intentionally, she'll probably look back at you to see your reaction. She may laugh or smile and seem to be having fun. If you yell, glare or have a big reaction of any kind, it will make her want to play this "game" again.

Of course, her safety is the most important thing. So, if your child runs into the street, leaves your sight or is otherwise in danger, don't worry about your face while you run like crazy to catch her. But if she's just running down the hallway at day care or sprinting ahead of you down a grocery store aisle, try to wipe your face of any expression. Simply act as if you think she's doing something normal.

Call out something like, "Wow, you ran really fast!" or "My turn! Watch me come over there." When you reach her, calmly talk about how it's impressive that she can run so fast, adding that, because it's not safe for her to run ahead of you, you're going to have to hold hands, put her in the cart, carry her or go home early. The combination of your calm reaction and her shortened leash should discourage her from running again in the future.

When Your Child Runs Away From School

During the day, your child's teachers and school administrators are responsible for her safety. If she bolts from school and they can't immediately find her, they should call the police and you in order to track her down.

Afterward, it's important to have a Very Serious Conversation about how dangerous it is to run away from school and what the consequences will be if that happens again. You should also have a meeting with the school to put safeguards in place, like having a teacher's aide accompany your child when she's outside the classroom. Consider investing in a GPS tracker made especially for parents to use with their kids. Some have small chips that you can slip inside her backpack so you can track her location throughout the day.

When Your Child Runs Away From Home

You make her do homework, eat vegetables and take baths every day, so your child decides to go find a nice family who will let her do what she wants. At least, that's the speech she might give you as she stands at the front door, holding an empty suitcase. Kids recognize that leaving home is one of the surest ways to get your attention, so that's usually the real goal of a grade schooler's runaway attempt.

If she announces she's running away, stay calm. Acknowledge that she's upset but emphasize that you don't want her to leave. Say something like, "I see that you're angry because I won't let you watch a movie, but I would really miss you if you were gone. Do you want to talk about it?" If she does end up walking out the door, follow behind her. She'll probably give up and turn away pretty quickly.

Of course, if she doesn't tell you she's leaving—if you just find her room empty, or she leaves a note announcing that she has left—you have to take action. If you have a good idea where she would go, call there first. But if you can't track her down within the first few minutes, call the police. When she gets home, you can figure out the cause of her unhappiness and decide on consequences. But first, get her home safely.

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